Art Ayris is a man in a hurry. The founder and CEO of Kingstone Studios has a reputation for never sleeping – he jokes that he looks forward to sleeping in heaven. In the meantime, he’s going all-out to reach people – particularly the young – with the word of God in graphic form.
His Kingstone Studios has not only developed the Kingstone Bible, a three-volume graphic adaptation of Scripture that rivals the best mainstream comics for quality, but he is also selling a feature film to the international market and is in pre-production for an animation of the whole Bible.
Despite internet difficulties and time difference, Ayris perseveres in connecting with me to talk about why he happily provides his Bible comics for use in Australian prisons and his dream of having the Kingstone Bible translated into Aboriginal languages.
It’s all because God gave this Florida-based teacher, pastor and football coach a vision of reaching kids and he wouldn’t allow several near-death experiences to get in the way.
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“My mother said, ‘I will never look at prisoners the same way.’” – Art Ayris
Ayris still gets emotional when he recalls his mother’s reaction when, as a four-year-old, he almost bled to death and was saved by blood donations from prisoners.
“I almost died when I was four,” he says. “My father didn’t know I was behind him and he was mowing a lawn and a piece of metal came out, hit me in the stomach and penetrated my intestines. The metal’s still in my stomach now,” he says.
“They had to pack me in ice. My father threw me in the car. I was sitting there holding my hands on the blood and everything. They took me to the local hospital … but they didn’t have enough blood because I was losing [so much] blood.
“They put out a call to the prison and the prisoners lined up to give blood for this little boy. I remember my mother, who had a great, tender, compassionate heart for people, said, ‘I will never look at prisoners the same way.’ So if people want to work with me to put my comics into prisons, it’s an easy yes for me.”
Currently, thanks to Ayris’ generous heart, 12 Kingstone Comics are given out by chaplains in Australian prisons covering topics such as Noah, Moses, Kings, Jesus and Acts of the Apostles. A wider range of titles is available at Koorong.
Ayris came to Christ when, at age 19, he developed gangrene and almost died from the after-effects of that childhood accident.
“All of that made eternity began to wangle, and I knew I was not ready to meet Christ. And so that brought me to the Lord.”
God continued to spare Ayris through several more near-death experiences.
“I’m a runner and when I went to buy life insurance, I had a bad EKG [electrocardiogram]. The doctor said I had an artery routed the wrong way and he said, ‘I’ve only seen this once in 20,000 times. This is the second time I’ve seen it. The other guy who had it just died.’ I said, ‘Get this thing taken care of.’ So within four days, I was in the operating room having open heart surgery.”
A year later, Ayris had another crisis from the metal in his intestines creating problems, and then a couple of years after that, he developed melanoma cancer which had to be cut off his face.
“So I’ve had several things that have been life-threatening, but I really try to hold this life loosely and try to invest for the next life, you know.”
“God just gave me a vision of reaching kids.” – Art Ayris
Ayris had no idea of the struggles that lay ahead when, as a children’s pastor at a large church in Florida, he tried to find materials that would connect with the kids that were not cheesy or junky.
“And the kids we brought in were really wild kids – no Bible background, no anything and so we began creating a lot of our own materials,” he tells Eternity via Zoom from the US.
“The Southern Baptists Convention publishing arm brought me up to Nashville. They saw what we were creating and they wanted to hire me. And I said, ‘No, I want to stay in this little town in Florida where I live.’ Anyway, God just gave me a vision of reaching kids. We had a huge children’s ministry and I would see all these kids reading this manga and these graphic novels, which were really dark. So we said, ‘there’s no reason that there can’t be a Marvel of this market connecting these kids to the gospel, to the Bible.”
“I would see all these kids reading this manga and these graphic novels which were really dark. So we said, ‘there’s no reason that there can’t be a Marvel of this market connecting these kids to the gospel.” – Art Ayris
From the outset, Ayris was determined that the quality of his graphic Bible would match that of the top mainstream comics, so he put together a team of 40 illustrators who had worked at Marvel and DC Comics.
Almost as soon as the Kingstone Bible was published in English, Ayris started working with mission agencies such as SIL to get it translated into other languages.
“We hope eventually to get it in Aboriginal languages,” he says
“We’re already in over 60 languages, and I think we’ll probably be over 100 fairly soon.”
Ayris tells how villagers in Papua New Guinea responded when a guy took the first two comic books in the Kuman language to them and taught the lesson.
“They wouldn’t let him leave the village with the comic books. They said, ‘You can leave, but the comic books are not leaving with you.’ And he told me they’re finding that the kids are already reading after two or three sessions with the comic books. They’re making word associations with the pictures. So we’re a big believer in Christian comics.”
“They said, ‘You can leave, but the comic books are not leaving with you.’” – Art Ayris
Ayris was talking to me from California, where he has been working on deals for international distribution of his latest product – a feature film called No Vacancy – at the American Film Market.
No Vacancy is based on the true story of how First Baptist Leesburg, where Ayris is executive pastor, chose unanimously to raise money to “take care of the broken, the addicted, the homeless in our community.” He led the acquisition of a local motel, renamed the Samaritan Inn, which now houses homeless families in central Florida. When it was shown in US cinemas in May, No Vacancy came in at No 10 overall in domestic box office.
“We’d had other people make documentaries about it. And I just really saw it to be a motion picture. So we recruited the stars, I wrote the scripts and the director is a wonderful Christian Guy. I’m sitting here today in California and we’ve had an unbelievable response to the movie. I mean, God’s just been with us.”
The other project close to Ayris’s heart is a new animation that should be the most complete animation of the life of Christ ever done.
“We’re in the fundraising process now, but we already got the scripts, we’re in pre-production and the animation should be starting very soon,” he says.
“This atheist on our social media said, ‘I don’t believe any of this stuff, but I want to get this Bible because it looks incredible.’” – Art Ayris
He sees the animation as another stage on the railroad tracks that started with the Kingstone Bible.
“One of the things that Kingstone is known is for quality. A lot of the Christian products historically in the United States have been kind of cheesy and not really for quality. So when I handled the Bible, I wanted to handle it correctly theologically, and we had people to do that, but I wanted to handle it well artistically,” he says.
“We just keep really hard lines on the artistic side, but what we find is it helps us across the general market. This atheist on our social media said, ‘I don’t believe any of this stuff, but I want to get this Bible because it looks incredible.’ And so we want to engage people in Scripture and it’s through comics.”
“God has just given us this unique medium of comics, film, and animation to reach people.” – Art Ayris
Ayris says a lot of people, especially Muslims, will not pick up a print Bible but they will pick up a comic book, which is why the explosion in translations is so important.
“And we’ve had many mature Christians who said, ‘I never understood the Bible until I read your Bible.’ They said, ‘I never understood the context.’ We get many requests, especially from prisoners, because they can’t read well. And with kids – we’re in the last few laps of our lives; the rest of our focus needs to be on kids – aged 4, 8, 12 – so that they’d be able to enter eternal life. And so that’s what we’re focusing on.”
I ask Ayris how Christ has changed him through the obstacle-strewn journey of his life.
“He had to strip me of self. If you want to go deep with God, if you want to meet him on the mountain, it has to become all about him, and it is not about you. And the media industry is an industry that is all about you. So like Moses, God had to send me out into the wilderness and stripped me of everything. But all of the physical things I went through, all of the challenges, it just really prepared me. I mean, somebody could lay a hundred million dollars in my lap, and it would not change me. I don’t think it would change my perspective or my trajectory. We’re trying to reach people, and God has just given us this unique medium of comics, film, and animation to reach people.”